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6 Notable Facts About the 2016 Hurricane Season

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A fisherman in Port-a-Piment, Haiti, repairs repairs his net on a beach damaged by Hurricane Matthew. Image Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

 
Thanks to warm waters and an assist from La Niña, this year’s hurricane season was an active one, and coastal residents have been on edge all summer. But now the winds of winter are slowly winning the battle between the Arctic and the tropics, forcing the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane season to finally calm down. In honor of 2016’s season, here are some things you might have missed about this year’s storms.

1. THE 2016 HURRICANE SEASON WAS THE MOST ACTIVE SINCE 2012.

Storm tracks for the 2016 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Image Credit: NOAA/NHC

 
If it seemed like we had to deal with a lot of storms this year, it’s only because the past couple of years have been relatively quiet. A “normal” hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean produces 12 named storms, six of which you’d expect to strengthen into hurricanes and three of those hurricanes would reach Category 3 intensity (115 mph) or stronger.

The 2016 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which officially ran from June 1 through November 30, saw 15 named storms, seven hurricanes, and three major hurricanes. The season began with an unusual hurricane in January, an early-season storm in May, and a string of storms that formed throughout the warm summer and fall months. But Hurricane Otto, which formed toward the end of November, was likely the last storm to form in the year.

2. LA NIÑA HELPED ATLANTIC STORMS THRIVE.

A seasonal sea surface temperature anomaly map showing the La Niña conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Image Credit: NOAA/ESRL/PSD

 
One of the major factors that allowed one storm after another to percolate in the Atlantic was the presence of mild La Niña conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It seems odd that cooler-than-normal waters in another ocean would have an impact on the hurricane season across the continent, but everything is connected. La Niña—the presence of abnormally cool waters near the equator in the eastern Pacific Ocean—keeps thunderstorm activity in this part of the world to a minimum, reducing the strong winds that flow east over the Caribbean and typically tear apart tropical cyclones before they have a chance to form. The absence of these winds allow storms to build.

The past couple of hurricane seasons were stifled by the opposite phenomenon—an El Niño—which created unusually high levels of wind shear over the Atlantic. Many of the storms that formed this year also had to battle strong wind shear, but it usually let up enough for most of them to strengthen before hitting land.

3. THE SOUTHEAST TOOK A BEATING THIS YEAR.

The United States only saw a handful of landfalls over the past couple of years, but this year was different. Five of the ten storms that made landfall somewhere around the Atlantic Ocean this year hit the United States, and all of those storms came ashore either in Florida or South Carolina. There’s no particular reason that storms kept targeting the same areas this year—each storm was different and they all took advantage of different environmental factors that allowed them to hit the same spots over and over again.

Unfortunately, none of the five landfalling storms took the right track to help alleviate the historic drought that’s plaguing interior parts of the southeast. Tropical cyclones that come ashore along the northern Gulf Coast or the southern Atlantic coast are a big source of rainfall for states like Alabama and Georgia, but this year drought-stricken areas have had to go without this plentiful supply of tropical moisture.

4. BERMUDA GOT HIT HARD, TOO.

It’s not just the southeastern United States that got it bad this year. Bermuda is a tiny island—just a little smaller than Manhattan—that sits a few hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina. They’ve had some pretty close calls in the past, but it’s hard for the center of a hurricane to hit this small speck in the middle of a vast ocean.

Hard as it is, Hurricane Nicole managed to do just that this year, with the eye of this major hurricane passing directly over the island and its 65,000 residents. The entire island experienced wind gusts of more than 100 mph while the eye passed overhead. Thankfully, Bermuda is resilient and well-prepared for bad storms, so damage from this storm was relatively minimal.

Nicole wasn’t the only storm to hit Bermuda in recent years. Hurricanes Fay and Gonzalo both made landfall on the island nation during the same week in October 2014; this back-to-back blow caused extensive damage across the island. Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015 also came perilously close to the island, causing some minor damage as it passed the west of the island.

5. HURRICANE MATTHEW WAS HISTORICALLY HORRIFIC.

Hurricane Matthew near peak intensity on September 30, 2016. Image Credit: NASA/NOAA

 
The worst storm of the year was Hurricane Matthew, a monstrous Category 5 hurricane that exploded in the Caribbean and came within miles of causing a catastrophe in the United States. Matthew was originally forecast to remain a minimal hurricane as it entered the central Caribbean Sea at the beginning of September, but the storm took advantage of calm winds, ample moisture, and record-warm ocean waters to exceed forecasts beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

Matthew rapidly grew from a strong tropical storm with 70 mph winds to a scale-topping beast with 160 mph winds in just 24 hours, and it maintained that strength as it closed in on the Greater Antilles. The hurricane crashed into Haiti on October 5 as a strong Category 4 storm, causing unspeakable destruction to the small towns that dot the hillsides on the country’s western shores. Entire towns were leveled by Matthew’s intense winds and storm surge, and some estimates figure that more than 1000 people died as a result.

It looked like Hurricane Matthew would repeat its destruction by making landfall in Florida as a major hurricane, but the powerful core of the storm stayed just a few miles offshore as it paralleled the Florida shoreline, sparing most coastal communities from the worst effects. Matthew eventually came inland in South Carolina, where the main threat transitioned from wind to flooding. Even still, eastern parts of North Carolina were devastated by the worst flooding in recent memory after the storm dropped more than a foot of rain in some locations. The floods killed dozens of people and caused so much damage that some school districts couldn’t restart classes until nearly three weeks after the hurricane.

6. HURRICANE OTTO MADE AN UNUSUAL MOVE.

The last storm of the season was also a bit surprising in that it strengthened far beyond what forecasters initially expected. The hurricane developed from an area of disturbed weather that sat off the coast of Nicaragua for a week, then quickly spinning itself into a borderline major hurricane before making landfall near the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Most storms dissipate when they move inland, but Otto retained its hurricane strength as it moved across Nicaragua, and its eye emerged in the eastern Pacific Ocean a day later. Hurricane Otto is only the seventh storm in recorded history to move across Central America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and only the second storm to maintain its strength as it crossed land. The most recent storm to accomplish this feat was Hurricane Cesar-Douglas, 20 years earlier in 1996. Cesar-Douglas has two names because convention at the time was to rename a storm once it crossed ocean basins—it was called Cesar in the Atlantic and renamed Douglas once it moved into the Pacific. 

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RAMMB/CIRA
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science
The Coolest Meteorological Term You'll Learn This Week
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Two tropical cyclones orbiting around each other in the northwestern Pacific Ocean on July 25, 2017.
RAMMB/CIRA

What happens when two hurricanes start to invade each other's personal space? It's easy to picture the two hurricanes merging into one megastorm that tears across the ocean with twice the fury of a normal storm, but what really happens is less dramatic (although it is a beautiful sight to spy on with satellites). Two cyclones that get too close to one another start to feel the pull of a force called the Fujiwhara Effect, a term that's all the rage in weather news these days.

The Fujiwhara Effect occurs when two cyclones track close enough to each other that the storms begin orbiting around one another. The counterclockwise winds spiraling around each cyclone force them to participate in what amounts to the world's largest game of Ring Around the Rosie. The effect is named after Sakuhai Fujiwhara, a meteorologist who studied this phenomenon back in the early 1900s.

The extent to which storms are affected by the Fujiwhara Effect depends on the strength and size of each system. The effect will be more pronounced in storms of equal size and strength; when a large and small storm get too close, the bigger storm takes over and sometimes even absorbs its lesser counterpart. The effect can have a major impact on track forecasts for each cyclone. The future of a storm completely depends on its new track and the environment it suddenly finds itself swirling into once the storms break up and go their separate ways.

We've seen some pretty incredible examples of the Fujiwhara Effect over the years. Hurricane Sandy's unusual track was in large part the result of the Fujiwhara Effect; the hurricane was pulled west into New Jersey by a low-pressure system over the southeastern United States. The process is especially common in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, where typhoons fire up in rapid succession during the warmer months. We saw a great example of the effect just this summer when two tropical cyclones interacted with each other a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro pulled a fantastic animated loop of two tropical cyclones named Noru and Kulap swirling around each other at the end of July 2017 a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Typhoon Noru was a small but powerful storm that formed at about the same latitude as Kulap, a larger but much weaker storm off to Noru's east. While both storms were moving west in the general direction of Japan, Kulap moved much faster than Noru and eventually caught up with the latter storm. The Fujiwhara Effect caused Typhoon Noru to stop dead in its tracks, completely reverse its course and eventually perform a giant loop over the ocean. Typhoon Noru quickly strengthened and became the dominant cyclone; the storm absorbed Kulap and went on to become a super typhoon with maximum winds equivalent to a category 5 hurricane.

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Kelly Gorham
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Space
Balloon Cams Will Offer Unparalleled Views of the Total Solar Eclipse
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Kelly Gorham

The August 2017 total solar eclipse should be visible to some degree from just about everywhere in the continental United States—that is, if the weather cooperates. But now, even if it doesn't, everyone will be able to watch along, thanks to livestreamed video from balloon cams drifting miles above the Earth.

Astrophysicist Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University (MSU) got the idea to monitor the magnificent cosmic event from the air after reading about an airplane pilot's flight through the path of a 2013 eclipse. She thought her students might enjoy the chance to get an up-close look for themselves.

But what started as a class project quickly, well, ballooned. At last count, teams from more than 50 other schools had joined the Eclipse Ballooning Project. The core of the work remains close to home; MSU students have designed, built, and tested the equipment, and even offered multi-day training for students from other schools. Undergrads in the computer science and engineering programs even created the software that air traffic controllers will use to track the balloons on the big day.

Students carry a large white weather balloon across a tarmac.
Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium

The next step was to get the balloon cam footage to a larger audience. Seeing no reason to think small, Des Jardins went straight to the source, inviting NASA and the website Stream to join the fun. The space agency is now beefing up its website in anticipation of 500 million livestream viewers.

And what a view it should be. The balloons will rise more than 80,000 feet—even higher than NASA's airplane-mounted telescopes.

"It's a space-like perspective," Des Jardins said in a press statement. "From that height you can see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space."

Online or outside, Des Jardins says viewers can expect a kind of "deep twilight, with basically a 360-degree sunset" during the eclipse.

She urges everyone to get outside if they can to see the event with their own eyes, but expects the balloon cams will deliver something really special.

"On the ground, an eclipse just kind of happens to you. It just gets dark," Des Jardins told New Scientist. "From the air, you can see it coming and going. I think that perspective is really profound."

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